So, if you read my “sticky post” – “What’s In a Game?” you’ll know that I categorize all athletic endeavors into one of the following four categories: a race, a game, a sport, or a judged exhibition. But those same categories can apply to many other things – for example, TV Reality Competitions.
The easiest show to produce, and in many ways, the most popular form is the “judged exhibition.” Shows like American Idol, Dancing with the Stars, So You Think You Can Dance, America’s Got Talent, Project Runway, Design Star, Top Chef… pretty much anything that has a subjective air to it as to whether or not a particular contestant was better than another qualify here. Of course, not all these shows are created equal. Certainly, the shows where the winner is determined by the “experts” themselves – as opposed to shows where whichever contestant is cute enough to inspire the most tweener girls to text in their votes wins – hold a lot more weight to me. And I’m still not sure how American Idol can manage to run long by as much as five minutes in their “results show” where all they need to do is say, “Sorry, Anoop, you’re going home.” But all in all, as long as the “skill” these shows highlight is worth watching, and the editing allows the program to move along at a brisk pace, the show will work.
As for races: we have The Amazing Race, whose title certainly says it all. Wipeout also fits into this category, though it is pretty much the exact same race every episode, shown multiple times within each episode, and I have no idea how that doesn’t get old really fast. Essentially, that’s the reason “race shows” aren’t more prevalent. Unless you attempt to get celebrities involved (like Superstars) or go to exotic locales around the world, they’re not likely to be engaging enough to inspire repeated viewing.
Games would be the category for any elimination competition in which the players vote themselves off, as in Survivor or Big Brother. The contestants involved in these shows are usually quick to attempt to eliminate those contestants who are really “playing the game,” as they are perceived threats to win the top prize. As there is one and only one top prize to be had, in essence, these shows have a ceiling to your winnings – the best you can to do is be the last contestant standing, at which point, you have won the game.
I would argue that the majority of dating shows, be they of the VH1 “Daisy/Flavor/Rock of Love for New York/Money/Millionaire” variety or The Bachelor and it’s various spinoffs and incarnations, while they follow a very similar format of eliminations as most “games” do, are actually sports. For one, the eliminations are at the whim of the person making the final choice, and therefore, there aren’t any hard and fast rules to follow. The Apprentice, with Donald Trump firing one contestant simply because she “volunteered” to join the project manager in the board room, and another because she once had a DUI, which had nothing at all to do with anything related to the competition itself, is a perfect example of the complete absence of any true “strategy” for winning.
Additionally, there isn’t really a ceiling on your ultimate success on these shows… winning the hand of a suitor may be temporary (even to the point of being completely reversed on the reunion show) or it might lead to an actual long-lasting marriage – which would allow you to “keep winning” long after the show has stopped sending its camera crews to follow you 24/7.
That’s how I see it. But feel free to challenge me…